Monday, November 14, 2016


Justice Liu ’98 and Students Present Extensive Study on Asian American Lawyers

Yale Law School students Eric Chung ’17, Xiaonan April Hu ’17, and Christine Kwon ’17 recently joined California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu ’98 to present initial findings from their multi-year research study “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law,” at the annual National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) Convention. The event took place on November 4, 2016, in San Diego, California.

The Portrait Project is the first study of its kind to assemble a comprehensive portrait documenting the rise of Asian Americans in the law, their distribution across practice settings, and the challenges they face in advancing to the top ranks of the profession.

“Our goal with the Portrait Project was to shed light on our incredibly diverse community and provide a space for reflection,” said Xiaonan April Hu ’17. “We wanted to capture both our past and our present, so that we could trace our progress and better shape our futures in the legal profession.”

With considerable guidance from faculty mentor Professor Ian Ayres ’86 and Yale Law School postgraduate associate Samuel Dong, the study features wide-ranging data analysis from an extensive literature review, qualitative interviews during focus groups, and a national survey.

The project originated from a panel conversation hosted two years ago by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) at Yale Law School. At that event, Justice Liu met with APALSA members, who expressed a general sentiment that Asian Americans seemed underrepresented in government and public service jobs. The panel sparked a larger conversation, and in summer 2015, Justice Liu and a team of YLS students launched a systematic research study sponsored by the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund along with additional contributors including NAPABA, the NAPABA Law Foundation, and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

“We quickly discovered that despite the remarkable rise of Asian Americans in the legal profession over the past 30 years, there has been no comprehensive study of this development or its implications for our community, the profession, and society,” said Justice Liu ‘98. “Our study is an initial attempt to fill that research gap.”

After months reviewing the limited existing literature and data documenting the trajectories of Asian American legal careers, the research team for the Portrait Project conducted a series of focus groups with 77 Asian American lawyers at the November 2015 NAPABA Convention in New Orleans. The following summer, the research team launched a nationwide survey, collecting more than 600 responses exploring a variety of dimensions of Asian American lawyers’ experience, ranging from demographic data and law school experiences to indicators of job satisfaction and mental health.

“As an Asian American, first-generation professional student, I found it particularly meaningful to learn more about the priorities, needs, and opportunities for Asian Americans across legal sectors,” said Christine Kwon ’17.

Summarizing two years of research and analysis, the team presented their findings at the 2016 NAPABA Convention, which welcomed nearly 2,000 Asian American lawyers from around the country. Notably, the Portrait Project found that Asian Americans have gained a foothold in virtually every sector of the legal profession but remain significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of law firms, government, and academia.

The Project’s other key findings include:

•   Over the past three decades, the number of Asian Americans in law school has quadrupled to roughly 8,000, now comprising nearly 7% of total enrollment—the largest increase of any racial or ethnic group. But since 2009, Asian American first-year enrollment has fallen by 39%, the largest decline of any group.

•   In their initial years after law school, Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to work in law firms or business settings, and they are least likely to work in government. Few Asian Americans report that a primary reason they attended law school was to gain a pathway into government or politics.

•   Although Asian Americans comprise 10.5% of graduates of top-30 law schools, they comprise only 6.5% of federal judicial law clerks.

•   For nearly two decades, Asian Americans have been the largest minority group in major law firms. But they have the highest attrition rates and the lowest ratio of partners to associates among all groups.

•   Despite recent progress, only 26 Asian Americans serve as Article III judges, comprising 3% of the federal judiciary. Asian Americans comprise 2% of state judges.

•   Asian American attorneys cite inadequate access to mentors and contacts as a primary barrier to career advancement. Women were significantly more likely than men to report experiencing barriers to career advancement.

•   Many Asian American attorneys report implicit bias and stereotyped perceptions as obstacles to promotion and advancement. Among Asian American attorneys, women are more likely than men to report experiencing implicit or overt discrimination on the basis of race.

“For Asian Americans in the legal profession, the milestones have been significant, as have been the challenges,” said Eric Chung ’17. “To consider where we go from here requires understanding where we are now. I am so proud of Yale Law School’s commitment to supporting this project and that a team of its students, both past and present, can help share this otherwise mostly untold story.”

The team plans to release a formal report documenting its findings in early 2017.